Before the honey-sweet vocal harmonies of indie folk darlings Tegan and Sara, there were the Indigo Girls. Their brand of heartfelt folk rock had commercial appeal from the beginning, leading to a quarter-century-long career for the singer/songwriters, who continue to write and tour today. But as two openly gay best friends making music together, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have always gone against the grain.
Ignoring advice to keep their sexuality under wraps to avoid being pigeonholed in the industry, the two decided to let the music speak for itself and have used their public platform to speak out on issues that matter to them: feminism, human rights, the environment. They're not just the Indigo Girls; they're also entrepreneurs, activists, and generally great human beings.
Next month, Indigo Girls join Lyle Lovett and Huey Lewis & the News as headliners of the inaugural Lauderdale Live music festival on the downtown waterfront of Fort Lauderdale. We spoke with Saliers, who weighed in on everything from fracking to music festivals to Miley Cyrus.
New Times: Where are you now?
Emily Saliers: I'm in Atlanta. We just got home from a long season of touring. It's beautiful; it's like in the 60s. I love fall. It's my favorite season, anyway.
You've been making music together as Indigo Girls for almost 25 years -- how do you keep going for so long?
There are different reasons. Some of the reason is that we have very separate lives. Amy owns an independent record label and just put out her fifth solo record, and I write books with my dad, and I co-own a restaurant. We have separate creative projects, so that not everything in our lives is Indigo Girls. When we come back together, we're excited and refreshed and inspired. And we write our songs separately from each other, but we're able to arrange them together, so it means that, you know, her songs are different from mine. It's interesting for us, because it's not all just one person with the output of the music.
And then, you know, we just have a very solid friendship. We've known each other since we were in elementary school. We have the same basic value systems, and we have a lot of respect for each other. We've learned to trust our process over all these years. So it's been a great ride and continues to be so.
We can never predict the future, but, you know, if I had to say today, we're as full force as ever. We're in the process of writing, and we're about to start working on the new record June of 2014. We plan to go out on the road and keep touring. There's no sign of the end, as of today.
How has the focus of the music changed or shifted over the years?
With this record, it's too soon to tell, because we're really sort of at the beginning of honing in on the writing. Amy has just recently been working on her latest solo record and was working really intensively on that. So it's way too early to say the shape of the songs. And over the years, there haven't been really superdrastic departures. Some of the records have started out pretty acoustically... We wanted to maintain what it was that we did without overproducing it.
Then we went through years of kind of bigger budgets, and we could have all kinds of people come and play and sing, and we had a lot of fun with that. Then we did a couple more that were more stripped-down. So that's sort of been the scope of things, picking a producer at the time who we want to work with. We've done a lot of records with Peter Collins. We just pick the players and, you know -- I think this is gonna be our 14th studio album, something like that.
You mentioned you own a restaurant. What inspired that; what kind of restaurant is it?
I co-own a restaurant, yup. It's Southern food. We have a new location that's been open about a year and a half. The restaurant is called Watershed. We were in a small converted garage for 13 years, and then we closed that one and we opened the bigger space.
We have two chefs; the second is from Louisiana. It's a beautiful space, it's a great space to congregate, the crew is wonderful. I love it. When we started, I had time off, we had three other partners, and everybody just had a spot in their life where they could do something new. I've been a foodie since I was born, so I love food, and when I travel, that's one of the first things I check out: Where's the great food? It doesn't have to be fancy, just even if it's authentic Mexican, the best taco in town, that kind of thing. I've loved food my whole life, and this is just an outpouring of that.
You've been activists for quite some time. What are your biggest concerns right now socially and politically?
We have a lot of concerns. I'd say some of the ones that we're spending the most time on are environmental concerns with respect to indigenous communities. Amy and I formed a group over 20 years ago now called Honor the Earth, and Winona LaDuke is our executive director. She's a very respected and fantastic Native American activist. We recently were in the upper Midwest, and we're working to stop devastating mining practices, where legislation has gutted the environmental protections.
Fracking is a huge, huge problem, coming in and actually threatening the very existence of tribes and their ecosystems. And not only for them but for all of us, things like fracking are not sustainable. In fact, they're quite dangerous. We're working a lot with different tribes and different environmental activists to stop that kind of sort of short-sighted, profit-driven destruction of the Earth, you know? For all of us. We spend a lot of time working on that.
In lieu of Miley Cyrus, Sinead's open letter, etc -- what would be your message to young girls today facing current expectations projected by the media?
My message would be find your own voice. And don't compromise your personal integrity, whatever that is, in any way. So, it's gonna be different for different young women and girls, but it's important to find your voice, and that is that which most resonates in your soul -- we all have one. And don't make any compromises that don't go along with that. Those would be my words of advice.
What do you listen to in your free time?
I honestly love all different kinds of music. I listen to a lot of classical music, and I also love Jay Z. I love a lot of R&B artists; I love Beyoncé and Mary J. Blige. A younger band that came up recently called the Belle Brigade, I love them. Patty Griffin rereleased an old record called Silver Bell, I think. Amos Lee, just bought his new record. But I really like, I like house music, R&B, rap, folk. Just about anything, except for smooth jazz. I have an iPad set up on my counter, so I can look up recipes and play music at the same time.
What's your impression of music festivals today? Do they have the same impact they did before?
I think it's one of the best ways to listen to live music. Typically, it's cheaper than going to buy all tickets for every artist that you could see at a festival. And, to me, it's just grand being outside, just with a bunch of other people who are totally into music -- festivals are awesome. We just came from a couple of festivals in Canada, and those are really cool too. They're just different from American festivals. Their audiences are quiet; they're really intent on listening, but they're very exuberant in their response and passionate about listening to music, and I enjoy that experience -- both as a concertgoer and as a musician.
What should we look forward to most about your show at Lauderdale Live in December?
We heard Lyle Lovett is playing, and we're big fans of his. But also there's Shovels & Rope, Amy's a huge fan of theirs, so that's cool. We have an artist that's more well-known and then an artist that's more up-and-coming. It's our first time playing this festival, which is always fun. And then, we're gonna be playing with our band, and we won't have played with them in several months. We're excited to be reunited with them. I'm psyched; I'm really looking forward to it.
Lauderdale Live with Indigo Girls, Lyle Lovett, and more. December 6 to 8 at Fort Lauderdale downtown waterfront. Visit lauderdalelivemusic.com.
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